Sublime Serena creates more history
23rd Grand Slam title. That incredible number is Serena’s latest, and perhaps greatest, achievement. Now clear of Steffi Graf’s mark of 22, Williams has now won more major singles titles than any player in the Open Era. Next up is Roland-Garros. And the all-time record of Australia's Margaret Court?
Has there ever been a player who has more frequently defied conventional tennis wisdom than Serena Williams?
Professional players in the same age bracket as the 35-year-old American have typically lost a step, or some of their motivation and fire. And they’re often winding back their careers.
Not Serena – she’s slamming aces, moving explosively about the court and winning Grand Slam titles, the latest being the Australian Open.
Read more: Onwards and upwards for peerless Serena
Professional players aged 35 are not ranked No.1. The highest-ranked male aged 35 is the great Roger Federer; he’s world No.10. Venus Williams, the closest equivalent to Serena in both ranking and age, is ranked 11th.
But the top of the rankings is where Serena finds herself yet again. She returned to No.1 – the oldest woman to ascend to top spot, breaking her own record from four years earlier – after her triumph at Melbourne Park, a victory that delivered her an incredible 23rd Grand Slam title.
Serena Williams now holds 23 grand slam singles titles - the open era record! History in beautiful pictures.... pic.twitter.com/Oh3V4yOkd6— 23RENA (@noelleharmony) 28 janvier 2017
That number is Serena’s latest, and perhaps greatest, achievement. Now clear of Steffi Graf’s mark of 22, Williams has now won more major singles titles than any player in Open Era history.
“It's such a great feeling to have 23. It really feels great. I've been chasing it for a really long time. It feels like, really long time. When it got on my radar, I knew I had an opportunity to get there, and I'm here. I'm here,” she said.
“I definitely don't (have an end goal or final number in mind). I never had a number. That's the beauty of it. When I started this journey, I just wanted to win a Grand Slam. Then I just wanted to win. Every time I step on the court, I want to win. It's just really remarkable.”
Remarkable is a word that could be used to describe Serena’s progress at Melbourne Park.
In what was a magnificent fortnight of powerful, precise, composed, intense tennis, she never dropped a set en route to her seventh title in Australia. Yet she was perhaps handed the toughest path to the title of any player in the draw.
She opened her tournament with matches against Belinda Bencic and Lucie Safarova, both unseeded following respective battles with injury and illness but both former top 10 stars. Williams’ last match against Safarova came in the final at Roland-Garros less than two years ago.
Serena Williams / Lucie Safarova, Roland-Garros 2015 women's final
“Honestly, it's not ideal,” Serena said at having to face two quality opponents so early at a Grand Slam event. “But at the end of the day, when I play players like Bencic and Safarova, they force me to play better. It forces my game from the very first day to be at a high level. So I think it's actually good. I needed something to start really fast. I'm not going to complain about it.”
With those hurdles navigated, It was no easier from there. Two rounds later, she got past tricky 16th seed Barbora Strycova before a quarterfinal meeting with the red-hot Johanna Konta, the newest member of the top 10 and who arrived at that stage of the tournament on a nine-match winning streak after storming to the Sydney title a week earlier.
Serena won 6-2 6-3.
After seeing off surprise semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in just 50 minutes, Serena faced a familiar foe, but one she hadn’t met in more than seven years across the net in a Grand Slam final – her sister Venus.
Read more: Venus and Serena: Sister act, take... 9!
“It definitely makes it uncomfortable,” Serena said of playing a major final against her older sibling. “But after everything that Venus has been through with her illness and stuff … It's the one time that I really genuinely feel like no matter what happens, I can't lose, she can't lose. It's going to be a great situation.”
The sense of gravitas, history and occasion could clearly be felt when the two sisters entered Rod Laver Arena on that Saturday night. Venus was appearing in her first major final since Wimbledon 2009. She and Serena were meeting for the first time at the Australian Open since their final stoush 14 years earlier.
Serena was shooting for the chance to be immortalised in the tennis record books. And she won 6-4 6-4.
“I think more than anything you have to have the confidence to win these matches. At the end of the day, whether it's now or then, she has the confidence to do it,” Venus said of Serena. “She's a champion. She's a champion on the court. She knows how to take it to that next level.”
When it comes to levels of achievement, there are few left for Serena to attain or surpass.
But it didn’t stop some journalists from looking ahead and venturing for Serena’s opinion on targeting Maragret Court’s all-time record of 24 major singles titles, or the possibility of a calendar Grand Slam.
She wasn’t taking the bait.
“No,” she answered when asked if the mark of 24 was on her radar. “One thing I learned in the past is you have to enjoy (the current victory). That's the beauty of winning Australia, you have a few months to relax. If you win the French, it's like back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Australia, you have time to enjoy the moment before the next Grand Slam.
“I don't think about (the calendar Slam) either. So just one at a time.”
Next up is Roland-Garros. And another shot at history.
When Venus and Serena won their first Grand Slam title together: it was the French Open in... 1999!